Prying My Fingers Loose

It seems instinctive, this fear of loss, this near-stranglehold on what matters to us. Of course we’ve learned to cover it up well, to give it acceptable labels: we are concerned about the people we love; we value our friendships; we want to be good providers for our families; we want to take care of our health; we work hard and just want to unwind. We’ve learned to live with fear and to work it into our cultural norms quite well. But no one wants to dig below the surface and face the howling insecurities that drive us all.

So it goes against all sensibility, the way Abraham turned to Lot and said “Choose which land you think best for your flocks” as they looked out over the hills stretching away into the horizon– the land God had already given him.  And Lot chose and Abraham just nodded and let him go his way–Lot taking the best of land that wasn’t his to take and Abe giving what had been given, holding his Promised Land with open hands.

Makes me think about the things I hold onto, and why it is so hard to let go.

Maybe it’s the illusion of control when I hold onto things, the deception that still whispers that if I try hard enough I can shape my own destiny and keep my own heart safe, and the ones I love.  Because if I lose that security blanket (however flimsy) what is left is just me and my small concerns in a huge universe, at the mercy of the Creator, and is that really enough?  It is the same whisper that has echoed in the hearts of men since we first heard it in the Garden…. seems like we would have realized by now just Who is in charge, and how much better things were before we fell for that line.

But mostly it’s the fear of losing, when I hold onto things– fear that what is precious can be ruined and my heart can break at the loss.  Fear of not having enough that drives me to hoard and grab and fight for what is mine, like any starving child. Only it has far wider application than physical food; it’s about all the things I think I need: security, love, respect, significance, some meaning in this world. Life feels like a battle, most days, and we have all suffered casualties. We came right out of the Garden knowing how fragile life really is, and how you can lose it all in a few warped moments. Ever since, we have been clutching onto everything good with both hands as it runs through our fingers, trying to hold on and never lose it again.

But Abraham didn’t, even though he had left home behind and come so far to get what had been promised him.  He knew that it was all gift anyway, so he let his nephew take what he wanted, and kept on trusting the Giver to be faithful to His promises. Traveling through the harsh desert should have made him more wary, more mindful of loss, but somehow blessings overflowed into thankfulness enough to fill up his heart and open his hands. It strikes me as the best way to live, out of wholeness and contentment instead of fear….the only way to live, if we truly believe that when we have God we have everything good that is needful, and all things are working together for good, according to His promise.

So pry these fingers loose from the things I can see and touch. Deliver me from the instinct of Self-preservation, and the fear of losing that springs from mortality.  Let me live in full thankfulness, because all is gift, and there is a Giver who does not grow weary; I do not need to hold on tight, because You hold me and all the things I love in Your own love-scarred hands.

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“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“The more I submit my desires to Jesus while letting go of outcomes, the more He seems to answer the deepest longings of my soul. His abundance always surpasses my imagination and fulfills the prayers I didn’t even know I needed to pray.”  Shelly Miller

Whatever You Need

“And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:19) It was the favorite verse of every impoverished college student, and we repeated it to one another encouragingly as we worked our campus jobs, and prayed over bills, and looked for lists of secondhand textbooks on the board in the Campus Center, checked our post office boxes for letters from home in hopes of a check. Lessons in faith well-learned in those years and often leaned upon. But somehow financial needs are the most straightforward place to trust and I have been struggling ever since to know where else to pin it.

Is that verse for parents who are raising a child with overwhelming health needs and finding it takes more energy than they have to give? Will God supply for the parents who are moving a college grad back home because he can’t find a job, knowing full well that student loans are looming? Does God’s promise of provision cover the heart-sore mother over another holiday, who just wishes her family could be together? Does that verse belong to the ministry leader who keeps pleading for more workers, and often grows weary?  So many needs, and they color our lives with desperation for a solution, because they make us feel helpless and afraid. We need a Provider, and doesn’t this well-known verse say that God will supply all our needs?

It strikes me, all these years later, that maybe it wasn’t really meant to be applied to many other things. Just before the Church-Planter Paul made this sweeping claim for the Philippian church, he commends them for giving generously to him in spite of their own hardship, and he confides to them that he has learned the secret of contentment through trial and error….in all the pressing and shifting circumstances of his journeys, he had found this one thing to be constant: the God who had called him was with him always and gave him strength to meet every situation.

In joyful abundance, it is Christ who enables Paul to live well in the midst of it. And in hunger and need, it is Christ who sustains him. It is a secret, a treasure Paul has found hidden in life’s ups and downs, the kind of thing you only find out by living through both. Clearly then, his statement to the Philippian church was no promise that God would supply everything lacking in their lives, nor was it a promise that they would never go without in the future. Maybe it’s just that their generosity is something God notices and rewards.

Indeed, because the secret of contentment is worth sharing with his readers, Paul implies that both abundance and need are only a means to an end. To his way of thinking it is good for our souls to experience both (and probably repeatedly, given how slow we are to learn) so that we may find the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ. Clearly going without was not something Paul feared– not something he would be quick to promise away for his readers. And yet a few paragraphs later he says God will supply all their needs, so it makes me think that maybe his idea of need is something different than mine.

We believe that Christ’s riches are big enough to cover, and we would definitely like God to supply all our needs as concretely as money in a bag, but I think Paul’s real point is about that deeper issue: the secret of knowing God and living in His presence, whether you have the tangible things you need or not. When I go looking for verses about God’s provision I see Him promising forgiveness, mercy, peace, justice, Presence, strength to do what is in front of me….these are the intangibles He thinks I need in life. The other stuff is just the extra details, the context. Like Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

It is a kind of culture shock, this head-long collision between normal human perspective and the spiritual reality, like trying to get my brain around a foreign concept. Show me what I really need, Lord, in each situation, and help me to focus there, rather than on the needs most obvious. Help me discover this secret of being “content in whatever circumstances I am.”

It would be frightening to depend on a God who cared more about my spiritual growth than my situation, except that I know His heart. I know His mercy endures forever. Verse after verse piles up overwhelmingly in my favor. He loves me and He is good. I can trust Him in this.

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“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself.” (These Strange Ashes, Elizabeth Elliot)

How to Really Live Well

What you believe matters most of all. It will affect the way you live, and the way you love, and the way you work, and the way you die. Just ask the little boy who is afraid to go to bed at night in the dark. Ask the mama who is sending her youngest off to college, and the woman who is giving up her career for health reasons. Ask the young adult wondering if there is someone else out there who wants to spend the rest of a life building a home together. Ask the wife sitting with her husband during chemo treatments. Ask all of us, in the stillness of our hearts if what we believe about ourselves and our experiences doesn’t make all the difference in the world. Because how we see life is how we will react to it, and what we think is who we are becoming. Beliefs are the building blocks that will make a life, and some of us don’t even see it until we turn around at the end, and wonder what we built.

The funny thing is that we pay so much attention to what is going on around us– what we are doing, and how we are feeling in the moment– and rarely spare a glance for the beliefs that drive us, underneath it all. The Wise King told his sons to figure that out first, before they wasted their whole lives with meaningless moments….to find solid faith-footing that could guide their steps: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10) I guess desperation drives some of us, because when you are caught in a storm you start sorting through what you can hold onto, pretty quickly. And what good are beliefs that just fill your head and can’t anchor down Real Life when the winds howl and beat against your house?

Maybe it’s okay to find yourself weak if you find out how sturdy God’s Words are when you lean hard on them. Like the Wise King says, “My son, do not lose sight of these— keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble….for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” (Proverbs 3:21-23, 26) And if we believe something less useful, the storm will show that too, and maybe there is a severe mercy there somewhere. Because we all believe something, and it will play itself out in our lives, even if it all falls to ruin. Honestly, often the biggest obstacle between what I know about God and living it out in the real world is Myself– thinking I can do it on my own, hanging onto old hurts and misconceptions, finding it hard to trust, my own needs/ fears/emotions drowning everything else out– and I know there are some building blocks that need to fall like sandcastles.

The whole of James’ letter keeps pointing back to this one theme of knowing God and living out our faith. This is something all Christ-followers need to know, that what we believe matters most in this life, because this is what will work its way out into every day we live. “Yes, when you get serious about finding Me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (Jeremiah 29:13) So we keep on pursuing knowing God and His ways, learning to listen as if our lives depend on it, because in the end, they really do.

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“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

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“Where will you run, my soul?
Where will you go when wells run dry?
When the wind starts to blow,
How you gonna keep this flame alive?
In the fading light when night is breaking,
I know You will always be waiting;
You’ll always be there”
(The Secret Place, Phil Wickham)

Becoming Real

It is only a matter of moments to be born, but it takes many years to grow up into the person you were meant to be. That is true whether we are speaking of the physical world or the spiritual one. And in all that messy process we can sometimes lose sight of the end goal– no wonder the letter-writers in the first century took the time and the ink to remind us over and over of where we are headed, and why. James is barely into his first paragraph when he says “…when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:3-4) We tend to think that our end goal is Heaven, and skip right over that important truth that it is our maturity in the faith that God is interested in. Heaven is merely the final destination.

One of my favorite stories when I was little was the one about the Velveteen Rabbit. It wasn’t a fluffy just-for-fun kind of book, but one of those that asks hauntingly big questions from a child’s perspective. Decades later I find that we grownups are still rephrasing the rabbit’s “What does it mean to be real?”….”Who am I?….Do I matter as a person in this world?”….”What makes a life that is worth something?” 

The leather horse in the storybook nursery had surprisingly profound insight into the rabbit’s question. He told his young friend that becoming Real was a process of being loved that lasted all your life– and often it hurts quite a bit, but you don’t even mind, because getting hurt is part of being Real. All these years later, I find that Big-Brother James reveals a similar perspective in his letter to the early Christ-followers. He says that who we are and why we matter are all wrapped up in our relationship with Christ. We get to prove that our faith is real by putting it to work in a million down-to-earth everyday ways: at home with our families, at work, on the street where we live, in the gathering together of the saints. In the process, we are growing up into Christ and learning to reflect the glory of the One Who made us. And yeah, all that does hurt quite a bit at times, because it is lived out in the real world, in community with all-too-real people.

James says we are supposed to love them just because Jesus loves them too. But we may as well be honest… loving people is hard sometimes. In all the ways they bump up against us, and see things differently, and act in their own interests, we can end up feeling rubbed raw and raggedy. That’s not all bad. In the words of the leather horse, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.” Gradually, as we endure, we are becoming more like Jesus in love and understanding and patience. James says you can recognize that transformation in a person’s life: “… the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds.” (James 3:17) Maturity doesn’t come all at once– it is a bumpy, sometimes messy process– and the only way we can hang in there is by fixing our eyes on the sharp vivid reality of Resurrection Life ahead. James writes his encouragement to us: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

No question about it, it can be a struggle to extend the gift of Grace to people who don’t deserve it. Somehow it is easier to accept grace myself than it is to hand it out over and over again. I can get weary of listening long, and being slow to anger, and controlling my tongue, and forgiving offenses… but James says this is what it means to really live in the Kingdom of God. Anything else is just pretending. And in that rugged everyday process of shedding our old skins and learning to live according to God’s wisdom together, we are becoming Real. We are finding out who we were meant to be, and discovering the reasons we were placed here and now, and James promises a good result in the end: “those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18) Specifically, Jesus says that harvest of righteousness will be a joyful Home in the depths of His love. “When you obey My commandments, you remain in My love, just as I obey My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with My joy.” (John 15:10-11)

Turns out that we and the stuffed velveteen rabbit have quite a bit in common. And it is the fortunate individual who discovers the blessing of being Real and Loved, being completely known and accepted for how we are made.  “‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”

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“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

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“We are not for long, and we are what we long for; we are but dust, and we are but our hearts; we are a vapor, and we become what we come to love. Love Him most and we who are a vapor become a fragrance of praise that will last for all of forever.” (Ann VosKamp)

Back to Basics

It sounds so simple that we might be tempted to brush past these few sentences, on our way to more pithy and profound instructions. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13) Why would James bother telling us to do something that would come naturally anyway– don’t we usually pray when we are in trouble and sing God’s praises when we are happy? Yeah sure, except that very often we don’t actually do those things at all, and I have to join Big-Brother James in wondering why.

Throughout his letter to all us Christ-followers, James has been underlining the fact that real faith shows itself through actions. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14) It is no use to walk through your days saying you believe God’s Word, if everything that your life produces says otherwise. I can protest up and down and until every last cow comes home that I am a Christ-follower, but unless I am actually trusting His will, choosing to obey Him, allowing the Spirit to transform my nature to His likeness more and more, I’m only an imitation. Along the lines of a store mannequin dressed up in a lovely outfit, and unarguably devoid of life.

But of course James uses word pictures that are more sensible to his first-century listeners when he points out that what flows from a man reveals what he actually believes in his heart. “My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:12) So for James, those simple instructions to pray or praise are making some important observations about the heart: namely, that in all the varying circumstances of life, the person who is trusting God as the Maker and Ruler will turn to Him in response as naturally as a fig tree bears figs. And like fig trees, this is a growth process, something that we are learning to do with every new situation we face. Something we must cultivate carefully, and watch out for the roots of distrust and self-will that get in the way of prayer and praise. No matter how far along you are, you have to keep returning to this simple everyday caretaking of the heart.

“Whenever you face trials of every kind…” you should know Who to ask for wisdom and strength, and you can even “consider it pure joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3) When life is beautiful you should understand that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) See, it’s not about how upstanding you look to the casual observer, but about Who has captured your heart. James is talking about replacing a list of regulations with a living, breathing love relationship. Whether we are grieving, or confused, or rejoicing over good news, we are invited to share our hearts completely with our Friend and Savior. And where the Spirit of God breathes through a man, flowing out in trust and prayer and praise, there is faith and a fresh spring of Life that lasts forever.

Here at the end of his letter, James is reminding us of basic instructions for everyday life in the Kingdom of God. To pray when we are in trouble. To praise and give thanks when we are blessed. To respond to the prompting of the Spirit of God Who lives in us and points our hearts ever and only to the Father. To “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in Christ. From here James’ letter can turn quite naturally to the complexities of life in the Family of God, where we are taking part in one another’s growth and healing, in beautiful ways. But first things first.

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“Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)

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“I know the night won’t last
Your Word will come to pass
My heart will sing Your praise again
Jesus, You’re still enough
Keep me within Your love
My heart will sing Your praise again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You never failed me yet…”

(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)

Resurrecting

We don’t really celebrate Easter as a family,” my friend told me with a shrug that seemed just a little bit regretful. I immediately stopped what I was doing and sat down to hear more. And as she recounted bits and pieces of her childhood, memories of fasting and rules that made little sense to a child, rituals “that probably had some symbolism to them,” readings to commemorate Jesus’ death…. it seemed pretty clear why she had left it behind long ago. “It was all a rather solemn affair,” she concluded, shaking her head.

But here in the middle of Passion Week, with fresh graves still crying out, and people we love fighting hard against this frail mortality, I wonder how a person can manage to  live without looking forward to that one gloriously empty Garden Tomb at the end of the week. Jesus crucified has shown Himself to be Lord and Savior resurrected, and what we think we know about the world suddenly rearranges itself. This is the crux of the Good News. As Paul wrote to the early believers, everything we believe and do hinges on the events of this one weekend. The Resurrection is a reality that blazes bright in the middle of all our darkness, the proof of who Jesus is and what He accomplished for us– a lighthouse pointing us toward Hope and Home. I always thought of Easter as a day to celebrate, I tell her, because Jesus rose again…

And Jesus told His followers that death is only the prelude to life: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” (John 12:24) We see it in gardens everywhere, and the Garden in the Beginning where death crept in was already looking forward to Life flooding from the Garden Tomb. So we come to Easter with hearts full of joy, for the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is changing us day by day, His power healing and restoring what was broken– new life springing up everywhere, with much more to come. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (2 Corinthians 2:9) Because Easter is not really a commemoration at all, but a victory celebration.

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“…let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies….
But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53,57-58)

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The fear that held us now gives way
To Him who is our peace;
His final breath upon the cross
Is now alive in me!
Your name, Your name
Is victory–
All praise, will rise
To Christ, our king.
By Your spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat;
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.
In Your name I come alive
To declare Your victory:
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.”
(Resurrecting, Elevation Worship)

Up Abraham’s Mountain

When Big-Brother James lays it out like he does, it is as plain as any road sign, and we’re all shaking our heads over how easy it is for us to lose sight of the simple Truth: faith and actions are entwined the way body and spirit are, and together they make up the life of a Christ-follower. Ignore either, and you are as lifeless as a corpse. It’s sad how in our sincere desire to be good we can detour off the path into wanting to be good enough or better than, until we find ourselves halfway up a useless tower with a hammer in our hands. It’s as if we’d never even heard the words of the ancient song, ” Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain…” (Psalm 127:1) And it’s just as likely that we will veer into a careless swamp of familiarity with Grace that lets us indulge our emotions, our desires above obedience to God’s ways. James is warning us that both are the subtle bent of the Enemy. How tragically ironic that among the ranks of the gloriously Born Again there would be those who are walking dead and deceived.

No wonder Jesus can state unequivocally that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) That may sound narrow-minded to modern ears, but He is only stating the facts, that you can spout all kinds of knowledge about God and build ministries that impress people, and still be dead as a doornail inside. Obedience that springs from a trusting heart is the only proof-positive of genuine faith. It’s as simple as that, and the signs of Resurrection Life in a person are that obvious: “… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit….Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:17, 20) Big-Brother James challenges us to recognize fruit for what it is, and keep a close watch on our lives and on the Family of God in which we live. He warns, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”(James 2:12)

We might not be so surprised at the way real faith manifests itself, if we think back to the Beginning. Eve looked long at the beautiful fruit, and listened to what the Enemy whispered about it… let the doubts grow in her mind that maybe God was taking something good away from her, and maybe He did not have her best interests at heart, and maybe if she wanted to get what she desired she should reach out and take initiative, show herself strong and intelligent and capable of plotting her own course in life. She let emotion and desire grow large, and when she acted she revealed what she truly believed. But just because you stake your life on something doesn’t make it true, and even a woman made with God’s own hands can lose sight of His love. We’ve been following in her footsteps ever since, captive to our ancestry in both our living and our dying.

So James holds up heroes for us as examples of real faith; Abraham and Rahab both faced the same tangle of emotions that Eve had– the same strength of desire, the same confusion about God’s intentions. And their choices also revealed what they truly believed, because they stepped out in blind obedience, trusting that His Words were true no matter what their circumstances were screaming. In their hearts, faith was both proven and strengthened by their choices to obey; in their actions, obedience was an offering of worship to God as Maker and Ruler. They declared Him powerful and just and righteous when they held onto His promises instead of their desires. They declared His glory when they valued Him over family and home and culture. They declared His right to rule by following when it didn’t make sense, by trusting the future to His plans. “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:23)

And isn’t that what Jesus did for us in His suffering? He came to earth in order to obey God fully– in every confusing and painful circumstance, against every opposition, in spite of every human emotion He had. He trusted hard and said “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Mark 14:36) And He looked forward to our trusting obedience and the righteousness He was providing for us, and He called us friends who would follow His example. He proved once and for all that obedience is the best way– the only way– to demonstrate what we truly believe.

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“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

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“As I walk into the days to come,
I will not forget what You have done,
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for me.
Doesn’t matter what I feel,
Doesn’t matter what I see,
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

 

Not My Will, but Thine

In the middle of Lent, and thinking about the Savior’s face set toward the cross. And all these burdens we carry seem so small and yet still so heavy, for they are all part of the same weight of sin in this world– the weight He carried for us, to do away with once and for all. Can we not have patience to watch and wait with Him in these long night hours, carrying our small pieces of His great burden, knowing that the Resurrection Day is coming soon? Because He has promised that there is beauty in His plans, and the redemption of all things.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our eyes on Jesus, to watch our Champion and follow His example in both living and dying. He says plainly that this is our pattern and our privilege: “Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now He is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.  After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.” (Hebrews 12:2-3) Who are we then, to be reluctant to trust God with our own circumstances? As if they were somehow more difficult, or we were more unique in our experience so that we could not pray with Jesus, “Thy will be done.”

In writing about trust, and the way Jesus prayed, a well-known preacher observed that “If we can’t say ‘Thy will be done’ from the bottom of our hearts, we will never know any peace. We will feel compelled to try to control people and control our environment and make things the way we believe they ought to be. Yet to control life like this is beyond our abilities, and we will just dash ourselves upon the rocks….to pray ‘Thy will be done’ is to submit not only our wills to God but even our feelings, so that we do not become despondent, bitter, and hardened by the things that befall us.” (Prayer, Tim Keller)

May we follow in Your footsteps toward the cross, Lord, lifting our trusting hearts up to You, along with whatever circumstances we are carrying. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

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“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)

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“Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet….

I’ve seen You move, come move the mountains
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
You made a way, where there was no way
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet.”
(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)

Real Life. Real Faith. Real Journey.

An ancient Chinese philosopher said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” He was right in so many ways, and I keep thinking that if Big-Brother James had ever heard that now-famous saying, he probably would have paraphrased it to say that the life of faith begins with a single step of obedience. Not being the kind of man to sugar-coat anything, he is likely to warn you that the journey will be difficult, and you should not expect otherwise. But he would also be quick to point out– and this is what makes you want to keep on reading– that the rewards of the journey far outweigh any hardship along the way. All the single steps of faith are adding up into something wonderful under God’s watchful eyes and guiding hand.

What James actually says, is “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) He’s already looking ahead to where that first single step is going to take you, which makes sense if he is thinking about the journey being a rough one. It is wise to count the cost, to judge the value of the journey by its lasting benefit. In this case he declares any obstacles well-worth-it for the sake of arriving Whole and Healed at last. But just in case any of his readers are feeling cautious about committing fully (and can you really blame them for hesitating to follow in the footsteps of a Man who was tortured to death?), James reminds them that life’s entire journey is only a prelude to the Real Life ahead. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

Looking at that big picture, any one of us would declare our full intention to hang in there and finish the race, to claim the prize of Everlasting Life. And none of us would have any intention of giving up what we believe. Maybe a better question is What are we willing to do in order to persevere in our faith? What is the step right in front of us?

Because James isn’t talking about some abstract set of beliefs. James is intent on making our faith-journey real in the everyday. As he puts it, “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) From his perspective, the next step is always one of real life obedience. He’s talking to real people like us, struggling with circumstances we all experience…with our desires…with our emotions. And a real God who can help us deal with them in a way that brings growth, if we are willing to do the hard work of applying what we say we believe. The Church-planter Paul agreed, and knew how easy it is to get discouraged in the daily small things. He included himself in his pep-talk to others: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) This is what perseverance is really all about, and it lives and dies in the small individual steps of Today:

Will I choose to be joyful and patient when circumstances stink, because I believe God is growing me to maturity through them?

Will I stop to ask God for His wisdom and guidance, instead of trying to figure out this problem by myself, because I believe His ways are better?

Will I set my mind on His promises amid the wind and waves of my emotions, because I know He is unchanging and true?

Can I set aside time to pursue knowing God more, despite basketball schedules, the movie that is on the DVR, and posting the latest on Instagram, because my relationship with Him is more valuable than anything else?

Can I lay down my fears for the future and rest in my Maker’s provision of daily bread?

Can I resist the pull of possessions in the face of marketing and peer pressure and the whining of my children, because there is no significance or security to be found in Stuff?

Can I choose to be content with whatever Jesus gives me in this life, because He is weaving it all together for my eternal good?

Will I face honestly the bottomless pit of wanting in my heart, and all the destructive ways it seeks to have More? Have the courage to just say no?

Will I trust that God is who He says He is: unchanging goodness, faithfulness, perfection, light itself? In every situation, even when I don’t understand what He’s doing?

Will I bite back the angry careless words and instead say words that heal and encourage? Forgive that person one more time and seventy-times-seven? Trust God with the safety and happiness of the people I love? Champion the outcast and the needy?

James includes all these in his letter, in a heartfelt plea for us to put our faith into action. You can say you believe in God all you want, but it is the path you take that proves Who you are following after. Paul expands on the subject with more theological depth, and from him we know that it is the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit that enables us to walk by faith. He explains that Christ’s very nature will sprout up in us as we obey Him and walk hand-in-hand with Him. Paul goes so far as to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

And if I will live the Christ-life, choose to act out what I believe over and over again– day after day for a lifetime, and against the world’s current that flows in the opposite direction– someday I will step right through the door into Eternal Life, still following in the footsteps of Jesus.

But for Today, all that is required is to take the next step…

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“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

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“When the weight of the world begins to fall,
On the Name of Jesus I will call;
For I know my God is in control
and His purpose is unshakable.

Doesn’t matter what I feel;
Doesn’t matter what I see;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.
Now I’m casting out all fear,
For Your love has set me free;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.

As I walk into the days to come,
I will not forget what You have done;
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for me…
You will always be more than enough for me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

 

Three Cheers for Hanging in There

I have always thought perseverance is the boring virtue. I mean, let’s face it: Is this how I want people to remember me at the end of my life, as “a woman who hung in there“? Perseverance seems way too drab and uninspiring. Keeping on with the everyday of what you’ve been given, and then doing it all again tomorrow. Even when it’s hard. Even when no one notices. Even when it’s not where you want to be.  Perseverance is a slow steady progress that is easy to disparage.

It’s like in Aesop’s old story about the tortoise and the hare, where the fast hare is so confident in his abilities to win that he doesn’t even take the race seriously. And really, who wants to be like the tortoise in the story? No one wants to keep plodding along slow and steady when there are others out there flashing by, to the cheers of the crowd. (And wouldn’t we all rather have life come easily, with plenty of time to play in the meadow and take naps?) Sure, the tortoise won the race, but it wasn’t even through any skill or cleverness or strength on his part. All he had to do was keep on going. Anyone could have beaten the hare with that kind of mindset. But of course that is precisely the point. You can have all kinds of impressive skills, but it means nothing if it makes you careless and distracted. Confidence and charm are pointless if you are going to quit running in favor of indulging yourself, before you hit the finish line. In the long run the character quality of perseverance counts more than buckets of talent and ability, and not just in results. God says it’s actually a matter of who you are becoming on the inside.

Specifically, God says dull old perseverance is a building block of our character. When life gets tough and we find that things don’t come naturally to us, we get to choose whether to run away or to face the pain and let Him use it to grow us. James tells us with the straightforwardness of a Big-Brother, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) Any parent knows that without a worthwhile goal and a plan to get there, hanging on is nothing more than stubbornness. But perseverance is the holding-on strength that gets us to the end God has in mind for us, one step at a time– and James says the result is beautiful. “Count it all joy” because you know the Father is good, and has good things in mind for you.  Paul describes God’s work in us this way: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory….” Transformation is a long slow life-long race, and we will feel like giving up more often than not, but hanging in there is what enables God to do His glorious work inside.

Perseverance moves you to give grace to that person and try to communicate better, to work together, instead of walking away….even though your heart is hurting. Because healthy relationships matter.

Perseverance inspires you to clean up one more mess….drag yourself out of bed one more time….listen to one more story of playground drama… when what you really want is just eight solid hours of sleep, or a quiet cup of coffee on the porch. Because you know they are worth it.

Perseverance is what keeps you praying long and hard until you have God’s answer. No matter how long it takes. Because you trust His love and His power and His timing.

Perseverance pushes you to face another day of the same old thing: of errands and phone calls and workday and chores that will need to be done again tomorrow. Because these hidden acts of service laid down with love and prayer are building a home and nurturing lives that will last beyond this world.

And it comes by the Holy Spirit at work in us with His power, just like all the other virtues. I need the help, because my own determination wears out after awhile, especially when life gets difficult and complicated. The older I get, the more I value the simple virtue of slow and steady progress– being willing to make many small right choices over and over again, with God’s help, through the changing circumstances of life. It requires unwavering trust that all those smaller, more boring choices are adding up to something wonderful just because God says so. It is simple obedience in the everyday, according to James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22) Hang in there and keep on going. As old Aesop the storyteller said, “slow and steady wins the race.” And this Faith-race above all, is worth winning.

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“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

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“Thank You for the wilderness
Where I learned to thirst for Your presence
If I’d never known that place
How could I have known You are better?

Thank You for the lonely times
When I learned to live in the silence
As the other voices fade
I can hear You calling me, Jesus

And it’s worth it all just to know You more

You’ve done great things
Jesus, Your love never fails me
My soul will sing, You have done great things”
(Elevation Worship)